Song Feature: Rye Whiskey

Song Feature: Rye Whiskey

Feb 23, 2024

"Rye Whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry!"

These were the first drinking song lyrics we ever sang with whateverandeveramen. When I started the group, I didn't really intend on this type of music becoming our primary programming. I pitched a "Song & Drink" event at a micro-granting event called Sprout in Seattle, thinking we could use it as a starting point for a lot of other things. However, hearing a room full of a couple hundred strangers harmonize and improvise percussion on their tables and glassware, I knew we were on to something. A decade later and our Song & Drink events generally sell out pretty quickly, and we have folks who come back year after year to share this music with us. We've performed so many different "drinking songs" over the years, I decided it was time to start compiling them into a songbook to share.

But where do all these songs come from? What is the history behind them, and what are they really all about? I'm going to (partly) answer these questions in a new Featured Song series that will get posted every couple of weeks or so. I hope you enjoy a little background on the tunes!

"Rye Whiskey" is an old American song. Like many folk songs, it's exact origins are hard to pinpoint. One of the first known recordings with this title is by Tex Ritter (circa 1932) but the origins of the song are certainly much older than that. Like most old folk songs, it surely evolved over a long period of time, being shared amongst friends who couldn't quite remember the title or all of the lyrics when they sang it the next time - or who simply made changes along the way. Even the title is ambiguous as it is similar to "Drunken Hiccups," "Jack o Diamonds," "The Wagoner's Lad," and "Clinch Mountain" (among others).

The melody itself most likely originates from an old Scottish fiddle tune called "Robi Donadh Gorrach," which was first notated by Nathaniel Gow. In his book “Dance to the Fiddle” Samuel Bayard says, "Either as a dance or a song, this tune has had many titles . . . the air has had the names of Johnny Armstrong, Todlen Hame, Bacach, Robi Donadh Gorrach, Wagoner's Lad, Clinch Mountain, The Cuckoo, Rye Whiskey, Jack of Diamonds and a number of others." Samuel Bayard, Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife (University Park & London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), p.567(.)

Wherever the song came from, the most familiar version does celebrate rye whiskey - and is perhaps unique in that rye whiskey is not among the most popular types of whiskey today - generally lagging behind bourbon, scotch, and Irish Whisky. Rye Whiskey has, however, started to see an increased market share in recent years. "From 2009 to 2019, rye whiskey volumes increased 1,275 percent, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of the United States (DISCUS) reports. The growth continues. According to Nielsen, sales of straight rye whiskey (9L cases) rose 14% versus a year earlier in the 52 weeks ended August 14, 2021. The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) reports a similar increase of 13% from the prior year through July 2021." (.)

So what is Rye Whiskey, what makes it different, and why do people love it? Rye whiskey is any whiskey where the mash is made up of at least 51% whiskey. From a taste perspective, where bourbon (distilled from corn) tends to be a bit sweeter, rye whiskey generally has more notes of spice, pepper, and sometimes fruit.

Our rendition of the song is posted below. Want to grab a bottle of rye to enjoy while you sing? Here are my picks:

The Gateway: Old Forester 100 Proof Rye
The Upgrade: Michter's US*1 Kentucky Straight Rye
The Splurge: Whistlepig 12yr Old World Rye

For more drinking songs, cocktail recipes, and original artwork, download Songs for Drinking

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